When Heather Robertson Fortner became CEO of SignatureFD in 2020, she quickly identified a path to long-term independence in a fast-consolidating industry. “By some back-of-the-napkin math, I knew that if we grew 20% year over year, by the end of 2025 we could be a $10 billion company,” says the North Carolina native. “That feels like legacy.”
Speaking with Barron’s Advisor, the head of Atlanta-based SignatureFD, which has added $2 billion of assets under Fortner’s leadership for a total of $6 billion, reveals a plan for the firm to become a succession platform for smaller businesses. She explains how earning a graduate degree in counseling and serving as a chief compliance officer helped prepare her for leadership. And the self-described “fighter by nature” discusses how learning to pick her battles has helped her succeed.
Where are you from and how did you get into the business?
I grew up in Charlotte, N.C., and we moved to Atlanta when I was a junior in high school. I was a finance undergrad and was taking an investment course and asked my professor if I should be a CFA or a CFP. And he said I should intern at this wealth management firm. He sat on their board. They had a mutual fund at the time. And he said, “I think you’ll get exposure to both sides of the house, CFA and CFP and just see what you like.”
I interned with them and then started my career with them, doing financial planning for about two years. I enjoyed financial planning, but I was itching for a little bit more on the business side of the
house. They had an opportunity to start a trust company with a community bank in town and asked me to help build that business. Once we got that up and running, I wanted to come back to the RIA space. And that’s when I found SignatureFD, at the beginning of 2003. They had a client service associate position open. I took it, thinking I’d figure out what I wanted to do moving forward. It was a downward move, but that was how desperately I wanted to get back into the RIA world.
How did you rise up the ranks?
The best thing about the firm at the time was that there were probably just six of us. And we were about $250 million under management. We also had a mortgage division and an insurance division. There was so much work to be done that it allowed me to try a whole lot of different positions. In 2004, the SEC said that every business had to have a chief compliance officer. I was like, “Yeah, I’ll go do that.” I got the training, and in 2005 I was named the chief compliance officer. I was already the director of operations, and this was just a chance to learn something new. I had also started my graduate work at night for a degree in professional counseling. So I was all over the board, just figuring out how can I bring all of these things together into something that is worthwhile to me?
And I simply believed that there was going to be a real need for people with skills in finance to also have skills in counseling, because I had experienced a home where money tensions were hard, and talking about money and financial issues was really difficult. And I believed that you could empower families through leaning into financial literacy, but also understanding basic relational and communication concepts. I believe that the graduate degree in counseling probably benefited me in helping to build a team and thinking through how we as advisors are able to better help our clients and our families.
Difficulty discussing financial matters is one of those things that cuts across class lines, isn’t it?
That’s a passion of mine. There are issues talking about money if you have money, and there are issues talking about money if you don’t have money. Money and communication are the two things that every human in our world has to touch. And yet we as a society don’t do standard education around either of those things. It seems completely irresponsible to me.
Let’s go back to your career path. Being a chief compliance offer isn’t everyone’s dream job. Why was raising your hand for the job a good idea?
The compliance role put me in the boardroom very early, and it allowed me to participate in the conversations that were driving the business. Because we were so small at the time and I was
responsible for building the platform that the business was going to run on, it allowed me to build into the business the constructs of regulatory compliance. It was just a priceless experience.
You went on to be the chief operating officer, and then president, and, in 2020, CEO of the firm. Can you share one or two keys to your career success thus far?
The first thing is that I had to trust my gut. A lot of people have a lot of opinions about a lot of things. And they think they’re right, because usually they’re really smart people. You have to discern fact from
belief and noise from truth, and then be confident enough to make decisions off that discernment.
The second thing for me was learning to pick the battles that matter. I’m a fighter by nature; most competitive, type-A people are. And I wanted to pick all the battles. But you can’t fight every battle, you
just can’t. And if you do, you won’t be in the seat very long, because nobody wants to follow that person.
SignatureFD’s assets under management have grown from $4 billion to $6 billion while you’ve been
CEO. What have been the keys to that growth?
One was getting the organization clear and aligned as to why we were doing what we were doing. People want to work for a purpose, for a mission, and to have impact. We got very clear about who we
are, what our values are, what rallies us together as a team, the differentiated value that we bring to our clients and the impact that we make in their life.
One of the things I brought to the table was transparency: This is who we are, this is who I am, and I’m not going to get it all right. Diversifying our leadership team was critical. For 17 or 18 years, our
leadership team had been basically the three founding partners and myself. There was a whole group of people in our organization who were qualified leaders, and I simply said, “It’s time. We’re going to put you in the room, whether you think you’re ready or not, whether we think you’re ready or not. The only way to be sure you’re ready is to get you to the table.”
What are your long-term growth goals?
When I came in as CEO, in 2020, we were at $4 billion. By some back-of-the-napkin math, I knew that if we grew 20% year over year, by the end of 2025 we could be a $10 billion company. That feels like
legacy. We’ve always wanted to remain independent. And at $10 billion, you also start to get some optionality on how you want to grow in the long term. Because at that point, you’re a platform. You can reach out to smaller advisory shops that don’t have a succession plan in place and say, “Look, we have built for the future. And we know there’s crazy optionality out there. But here’s why we believe we’re
one of the best options for your clients for the future.”
As a successful female executive in a mostly male industry, what advice would you offer other women
in the field?
I have done a lot of coaching for a lot of women and minorities over the years. And the thing that I tell people consistently is that you must know what you will compromise and what you won’t, and you must stick to that. If you will not compromise those things, you must be willing to go elsewhere where they will not try to cross your boundaries. You have to hold your ground. Women also have to be empowered by their leaders to stand for who they are and what they believe. And they need to then be supported when those boundaries get bumped up against.
What’s one significant thing you’ve changed your mind about in the past few years?
I really did not believe until a couple of weeks ago that AI was going to dramatically change how wealth management was delivered. But if you haven’t spent a lot of time with ChatGPT and looking at how AI is working and the learning that it is doing and the pace of learning that it is able to absorb and craft into solutions and unbelievable output….I now think this is a seismic shift for the future of our business. I believe that the larger institutions with a lot of money are already figuring out how to leverage the technology to do the actual plans, to spit out optionalities for portfolios, and how to build them in to write articles and to research and answer the client emails.
If AI were to take away 90% of what we do for a client, where does that leave us humans? Because a chatbot could answer the basic financial planning questions. Another bot could build a portfolio and
remodel it. A bot could actually run the plan in, you know, 10 minutes versus two weeks. Another could do the estate plan, and another one could do the taxes. So what is the real value that we provide? I
believe it’s in the integration of all of those pieces into a plan that actually is connected to the individual or the family in a way that compels them to take action. Because I don’t think that a robot will ever be able to convince a human to act. And ultimately, the success of these plans is dependent upon the individual taking action.
How do you recharge outside of work?
Did they tell you that I have a baby too? I had my first baby when I was 41. And then I became CEO in 2020. And then I had a baby Dec. 31 of 2021, when I was 46 years old. So I have a 6-year-old and a 13- month-old at home.
So how do I recharge? I have been blessed to become a part of some organizations that bring together executive women, most of them CEOs who have been doing this the majority of their career. I actually got together this weekend on a ladies’ retreat with a group. One of the most recharging things for me is to be able to just sit under the wisdom of the women who have been there and gone before, and who are intentionally pouring back into the younger leaders like myself. To hear them say, “Hey, I know it feels like all of this is life and death. And I know it feels like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. But let me remind you gently of the things that actually matter in your life.” Having that space and those people who believe in you and have faced a lot of the specific things that you face, specifically as a female leader. There’s a lot of recharge in that.
As CEO, Heather Fortner, leverages her Master of Science in Professional Counseling to truly listen – to the SignatureFD team, clients, and the industry – to realize the organization’s vision and mission to impact the lives of 10,000 families. A highly sought-after leader in the industry, Fortner is regularly asked to speak on women in leadership, the ever-changing landscape of wealth management, and what it means to break glass ceilings for others.